Loyal readers of this column know that I often enjoy experimenting with different roads and directions when we travel to and from our home in Galva and the southeastern spot where we hang out with our youngest grandsons and wade in the warm waters of the North Carolina shore. But our most recent Carolina-to-Illinois route was a little out of the way, even for me.
"Head south, hang a right in Florida, then right again in Texas."
This tidy bit of southcoast circumnavigation was not without a purpose.
Most of the time, we travel for one of several reasons. Sometimes, it's because we want to visit friends and family. Other times, we want to see and do something new. And once in awhile, we just like to go and revisit some of the places we've been before.
This time, we were going to do all three.
We would visit her aunt and cousin in Jacksonville, Florida, revisit a favorite gulf coast vacation spot from her childhood, make our first-ever foray into New Orleans, meet and greet family from both sides of the familial fence in Texas, and, finally, gather with a more-than-lively group of her high school classmates as they celebrated another of their annual Big Chill Weekends, scheduled this year for the ever-hip city of Austin.
Now, I don't really want to share a blow-by-blow travelogue. And believe me, you don't want to hear about every turn and twist in the roads we traveled, either. So let me just say that we had a nice visit in Jacksonville and discovered that the once-quiet gulf coast spot where her family rented a beach house years ago is now the crowded home to row after row of high-rise condos, pricey seafood restaurants and upscale resorts. On the advice of some well-traveled friends, we stayed in a quaint, quiet hotel in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter, and spent the evening on foot, sampling the sights, sounds, scents and succulent flavors of what well may be America's most exotic city. And while we were both quite excited to see some new, baby-faced additions to the Texas branch of her family, it was that hectic gathering of high school chums that really defined the rest of our week-long journey.
Here's a hint: the unofficial motto of our host city is "Keep Austin Weird." Thanks to the hard work and downright dedication of a Texas-based classmate named Gayle, this group of Chicago Heights southsiders and their sometimes-baffled spouses tackled a jam-packed, four-day itinerary that kept them on the absolute cusp of weirdness for the entire visit to the Texas capital. There was a seemingly unending list of interesting stuff to do and places to go, including a rough-and-ready roadside barbeque joint that was once featured on the food network, window shopping and food vendors along the trendy South Congress area, pub crawls in the Sixth Street nightclub district, and an Octoberfest celebration at an eclectic bistro that featured a polka band, rows of outdoor picnic tables, competitive beer-keg throwing, a whole-hog barbeque and a handy in-house dog park for those patrons accompanied by their best friends. Other excursions included a staid city-wide bus tour for those inexplicably wishing to suddenly act their ages, and a couple of sunset visits to the South Congress Bridge, where over a million Austin-based bats rise each evening into the darkening sky for their nightly meeting with anxious crowds of ducking, startled tourists. But possibly the most definitive field trip of all was to a faux-cowboy bar called Rebels.
The mission? Ride the mechanical bull.
Now, some cooler heads might think the over-60 crowd would be better off skipping devices intended to throw the user violently on a barroom floor. Most of the guys in our group passed, rightly thinking that it's really a lose-lose proposition to willingly fall off a giant motorized cow while being closely watched by both your wife and the girl you took to the junior prom.
The ladies in the group had no such inhibitions, however, lining up for a chance to buck, twirl and otherwise pose for photos and videos certain to populate both Facebook and YouTube in the near future. While I'm pretty sure the bar guys running the thing kept the bucking and twirling levels dialed down, it was still a fine sight to see for an old wannabe cowboy like me. For my part, I managed to convince my own favorite cowgirl to skip the heroics, and I, too, was quick to demur, thinking the last thing I needed was to drag myself back to Galva with an injury sustained on the back of a bull. I did, however, manage to give my always-tricky right knee a nasty twist while we were attempting a plucky Western Illinois version of the Texas two-step.
All was well.
The weekend wrapped up on Sunday night, and I was packing the car for the last leg of our trip home when my dance-damaged knee decided to buckle.
Caught unawares, I lurched and stumbled towards the edge of the parking lot.
"Uh, oh," I thought. "This is gonna hurt."
I was right.
As I finally lost my balance once and for all, my momentum carried me to the curb, where my ribcage struck with a breath-sucking thump that sounded, more than anything, like a ripe watermelon being dropped on a sidewalk.
Time stood still.
Well, not exactly, but it did take a minute for me to catch my breath and struggle to my feet, all the while worrying if someone had seen me take my tumble. I dragged myself back to our room, already feeling the bruising effects of my hard, headlong fall.
But life goes on. And we had to go on, too. On the road. The road home.
Sitting in the car, I tried to get comfortable, with a pillow pressed against my bruised, aching side and a bottle of Tylenol close at hand. Maybe I moaned. I might have even groaned.
She looked at me, patted my hand, and cut to the heart of the issue.
"Gee, honey," she said, not unkindly. "It's too bad you didn't hurt yourself riding the bull. It would make a much better story."
She was right. It would.